Undergraduate research experiences led Samira Musah ’06 to a career in the lab
The Musah Lab at Duke University studies stem cell engineering and human disease modeling
Samira Musah ’06 had no intention of pursuing a PhD or a career in academia when she arrived at Binghamton University. She thought she wanted to be a computer scientist because that’s what her older cousin had studied in college and she was fascinated by computers.
The summer before she started at Binghamton, though, she caught her first glimpse of the possibility of pursuing postgraduate study and a career in research during the Binghamton Enrichment Program (BEP), a summer program for students in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
Karima Legette, now the director of the EOP, was the associate director of the McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (McNair Scholars Program) at the time, and she spoke about postgraduate opportunities for low-income, first-generation college students and historically underrepresented minorities.
“I just remember thinking, ‘What’s a PhD?’” Musah said. “I had heard about it, but I didn’t really know what it meant. [Legette] talked about some of the things we could do after undergrad, but I hadn’t even officially started at Binghamton yet.”
Legette handed out information about the McNair Scholars Program, along with application forms. Musah wasn’t eligible to apply yet, but the seed had been planted, and she held onto the form.
Finding her way
Musah was born and raised in Ghana, moving to the Bronx when she was a teenager. Her experience at William Howard Taft High School, which closed in 2008, not long after she graduated, was not ideal. The school was underfunded and largely ignored by politicians, and crime rates discouraged qualified professionals from teaching there.
She said that, in a way she feels lucky, because her upbringing provided perspective that guided her and proved beneficial as she navigated the challenging environment.
“I came from a very humble background, and I saw how hard my parents had to work for things,” she said. “I didn’t have much, but I had way more than they did when they were growing up, so I felt like I had a purpose that helped guide me in terms of how I made decisions, and what kind of decisions I made.”
Once at Binghamton, Musah proceeded with her initial plan of pursuing computer science until she ended up in a required organic chemistry class and was surprised to find she loved it.
“I just remember everybody complaining, saying it was hard,” she said. “And I thought it was actually really kind of fun and made sense to me.”
The professors she had were instrumental in feeding her curiosity and interest in chemistry.
“Binghamton has phenomenal teachers,” Musah said. “They’re so passionate and really invested in the educational mission of the University, and I could see that reflected in their energy. They were very engaging. They made chemistry seem like an accessible topic and connected it to everyday life whenever they could.”
With her new major in chemistry solidified, she became eligible during her sophomore year for the McNair Scholars Program. She filled out the original application form Legette had given her during BEP and sent it in. Legette was equally surprised and impressed when she received it, as the application materials had been updated a few times in the intervening years.
“I just thought, ‘I have this application and I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to apply once I’m eligible,’” said Musah. “I had my mind set on the program.”
Her acceptance into the McNair Scholars Program set the stage for an impressive career in academia.
“That led me to my undergraduate research advisor’s lab,” Musah said, adding that her relationship with her advisor, Omowunmi Sadik, a former professor of chemistry, was one of the most important connections she made during her undergraduate years.
“I did all of my undergraduate research in her laboratory, and that’s where I discovered a passion for research and decided I wanted to go to graduate school and eventually become a professor. My experience at Binghamton is pretty much the reason why I am where I am now. I don’t think my desire to pursue research and a professorship would have been the same if my path didn’t cross with [Sadik’s].”
In Sadik’s lab, Musah researched how the chemicals in everyday products, like BPA (Bisphenol A) in water bottles or the ink used for printing newspapers and receipts can be disruptive to different organs in the human body.
“What we were doing in the lab was investigating how these molecules degrade and how they affect the biology of the cells and tissues,” she said. “That experience made me realize how chemistry could be used to address biological problems, and I became very interested in how chemistry could inform biology.”
Musah continued this line of research while completing her PhD program in chemical biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While there, she also participated in the interdisciplinary Chemistry-Biology Interface (CBI) Training Program. She then spent five years completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
Student becomes teacher
Today, the Musah Lab at Duke University looks at understanding how molecular signals and biophysical forces can function either synergistically or independently to guide organ development and physiology, and how these processes can be therapeutically harnessed to treat human disease, with a focus on engineering stem cell fate for applications in human kidney disease, extra-renal complications and therapeutic development.
“We do a lot of biology in my lab,” Musah said, “but a lot of the strategies that we use are really informed by chemistry.”
Musah, an assistant professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Duke, takes great satisfaction in her role as teacher now, in addition to the research she’s doing.
“Currently I have five undergraduates in my lab, on a team of about 15,” Musah said. “Every time I work with an undergraduate student in the lab, I reflect on my own experience, because I know for sure that if I didn’t have that experience as an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have pursued this career. It was such a formative stage of my training. My hope is that the students’ experiences in my lab help guide them as they make important decisions about their careers. And I hope that they have really good experiences that help them move on to bigger and better things.”
So much of who she is today goes back to Binghamton. Beyond opening doors to the research opportunities that meant so much to her, Musah found great support from EOP.
“It was so beneficial for me to have that community of people that I knew wanted to see me succeed and do well,” she said. “There’s been nothing quite like that almost anywhere else I’ve gone. Now I’m mindful of building that kind of support system, or trying to find something like it.”
Musah spent a good deal of time in the EOP office, being mentored by counselors and tutoring her peers in chemistry, physics and other subjects. Between EOP and the African Student Association, she made many friends that she still keeps in touch with today. She’s grateful for the support she received as a student and credits a lot of her success to her experiences at Binghamton.
“It might be hard to see how impactful the program is, in the short term,” she said. “But I think I’m a pretty good example of how EOP can enable an individual. I honestly don’t know if I, on my personal academic journey, would be the same without this program and the community and the support system that it provided. So I’m always really grateful for those experiences.”